WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of federal judges face the same task every day: reviewing an affidavit submitted by federal agents and approving search warrant requests. But for US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, the fallout from his decision to approve a search warrant is far from routine.
He has faced a storm of death threats since his signing earlier this month paved the way for the FBI to search former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation aimed at determine whether he improperly removed sensitive White House documents. Reinhart’s home address has been posted on right-wing sites, along with anti-Semitic slurs. The South Florida synagogue he attends canceled its Friday night Shabbat services following the uproar.
Trump has done little to lower the temperature among his supporters, decrying the research as political persecution and calling on Reinhart to recuse himself from the case because he has previously made political donations to Democrats. Reinhart, however, also contributed to the Republicans.
READ COMPLETE: The warrant behind the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago
The threats against Reinhart are part of a larger attack on law enforcement, particularly the FBI, by Trump and his allies following the raid. But experts warn that the focus on one judge, amid rising threats to the broader justice system, is dangerous to the rule of law in the United States and the country’s viability as a democracy.
“Threats to judges carrying out their constitutional responsibilities strike at the very heart of our democracy,” said U.S. Second Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan, chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security, in a statement. press release issued recently following the search. “Judges should not have to fear reprisals for doing their job.”
A phone message left at Reinhart’s apartments was not immediately returned. He will preside over a hearing Thursday at the request of media organizations, including the Associated Press, seeking to unseal the underlying affidavit the Justice Department submitted when it requested the search warrant for Mar-a- The girlfriend.
Asked to comment on the steps it has taken to protect Reinhart and her family, the US Marshals Service said in a statement “while we do not discuss our specific security measures, we are continuously reviewing the measures in place and taking appropriate measures to ensure the protection necessary to ensure the integrity of the federal judicial process.
Vitriol directed at the magistrate, while striking, is becoming more and more common. In 2014, the US Marshals Service handled 768 incidents that it classified as “inappropriate communications” to judges and court employees. Last year, it reported more than 4,500.
At some point, “virtually everyone recognized how inappropriate it was to threaten the life or safety of a judge because of disagreement with the judge’s decision,” said Barbara Lynn, chief justice. of the Northern District of Texas. “Now I think there are a lot of people who think there’s nothing wrong with that.”
READ MORE: Mike Pence tells GOP to stop going after FBI over Mar-a-Lago search
Lynn is one of several judicial officials pushing Congress to approve the Daniel Anderl bill, named after the 20-year-old son of District Judge Esther Salas. He was killed in 2020 when a gunman came to their New Jersey home. His father was injured. The bill, which has support from groups ranging from the American Bar Association to the National Association of Attorneys General, would keep more judges’ personal information private.
In June, retired Wisconsin County Circuit Judge John Roemer was killed in his home in what authorities said was a targeted assassination by a gunman, who also fatally injured himself. Later that month, protesters converged on the homes of conservative US Supreme Court justices after they overturned a 49-year-old ruling that women have the constitutional right to get an abortion. Police arrested a man with knives, zip ties and a gun near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home and he said he planned to kill the Tory judge. Congress quickly approved funds to bolster security in the judges’ homes and provide round-the-clock protection for their families.
The increased targeting of judges comes as trust in public institutions crumbles and partisan rhetoric escalates. This is part of a pattern that Steven Levitsky has seen before.
“This is a classic precursor to democratic collapse,” said Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of How Democracies Die. “To call it a warning sign is an understatement.”
Trump’s initial presidential campaign — in which he personally convicted a judge who ruled against him in a lawsuit against his now-defunct Trump University — changed the ground rules governing threats and explosive rhetoric, Matthew Weil, executive director of the Democracy Initiative, told Bipartisan. Policy Center in Washington, DC.
“There are threats everywhere now, it’s become more normal because it changed what was allowed in public discourse,” said Weil, who said the right and left turned to the threat. against the judiciary.
Nathan Hall, senior consultant at the National Center for State Courts, noted that the combination of insufficient public trust, coupled with access to judges’ addresses and personal information, impacts everyone from judges from the nationally renowned Supreme Court to the otherwise anonymous state judges.
READ MORE: A timeline of events leading up to the FBI’s search of Trump’s estate in Florida
“This brings us to the central issue of equal access to justice, a fundamental fundamental tenet of our ability to function as an independent third branch of government. It’s really shaken to the core,” Hall said. “Judges are just people after all. They put on a dressing gown, but they still go home to their families.
The most recent warning sign came after last week’s raid on Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort and political and personal headquarters. FBI agents seized 11 sets of classified information as part of an investigation into three different federal statutes, including one that governs the collection, transmission or loss of defense information under the espionage, according to court records.
Trump has accused the government of abuse of power by targeting him, and his supporters have opposed the online search, targeting the FBI and the Justice Department. A gunman who posted threats against the FBI on Trump’s Truth Social network has been killed by authorities after he attempted to storm the agency’s office in Cincinnati.
Yet Trump and his supporters have waged a rhetorical war on the FBI for years since the investigation into whether his initial campaign was aided by Russia in 2016. The intense scrutiny of an individual judge like Reinhart is relatively new. .
Gretchen Helmke, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, said Trump’s action mirrors what demagogues have done in other countries where democracy has collapsed. “A popularly elected leader targeting a judicial system is often an early indicator of democratic erosion,” Helmke said in an email.
Helmke cited Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru as places where a new administration pledged to clean up the justice system and then filled it with its supporters. “The public never develops real trust in the court system, and it’s essentially free for each new administration to use the previous government’s manipulation of the judiciary as a pretext to create whatever court it wants,” Helmke said. . “The end result is no judicial independence and no rule of law.”
Hall said people can look to other countries and see what happens when officials fear retaliation, places where “the rule of law has suffered. I guess you probably have a lot of differing opinions about how far we’ve already come, but that begs the important question.